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Theory with capital T

Political Theory Phd Applicant: Plea for Advice

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Hello guys,

I hope to apply to grad schools directly from undergrad. I'm double-majoring in philosophy and politics from a decent public university. Grade around 3.80. GRE: verbal 670, Math 730, AW 5. I've a good honors thesis on contemporary continental political theory (incorporating Strauss and Arendt). I've not published anything yet. Have taken 10+ courses on political theory, some of which are graduate level courses. And, unfortunately, I can't afford to do an MA. My LORs are supposed to be strong.

I'm specifically looking forward to universities which give emphasis to continental political theory (e.g. University of Chicago, Northwestern, John Hopkins, Berkeley, Notre Dame etc).

I'd be more than grateful if you could let me know whether I've a fair shot at above-mentioned institutions.

If not, could you please suggest me what should I do to become a stronger candidate?

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From my personal experience and comments on this forum, it seems like writing a superb Statement of Purpose is not only the most important factor of a strong applicant but also is the easiest (yet most complicated) to improve.

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From my personal experience and comments on this forum, it seems like writing a superb Statement of Purpose is not only the most important factor of a strong applicant but also is the easiest (yet most complicated) to improve.

Thanks! It puzzles me how the admission committees differentiate among candidates. Almost everybody possesses strong LORs, decent GRE, grades etc. Writing sample can vary, but I heard it doesn't play much of a key role in admission. SOP really seems to be the key.

I have another question for you: do you think the status of your undergrad institution matters when you are applying to rather elite grad schools?

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Check out notes from a tenured prof. about serving on an admissions committee. Will probably help answer some of your questions.

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You should know going into this also that the market for political theorists is downright abysmal, the worst of any subfield in political science.

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You should know going into this also that the market for political theorists is downright abysmal, the worst of any subfield in political science.

Yes, I've been advised many times about the abysmal job market. It's indeed frightening. Yet, given my overarching interest and investment, I can't simply change the discipline. It's not only about romantic rose-tinted affiliation with the subfield--- for me, political theory is more than "academic-interest." I appreciate your cautionary remark, yet I can't undo things...

Which subfield are you in?...

Edited by Theory with capital T

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You should know going into this also that the market for political theorists is downright abysmal, the worst of any subfield in political science.

How would you explain the "fierce competition" (I've seen people are saying so in this forum) for getting into political theory programs? If the job market is so bad, why people are still running after it? (I presume not many are caught up like me).

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How would you explain the "fierce competition" (I've seen people are saying so in this forum) for getting into political theory programs? If the job market is so bad, why people are still running after it? (I presume not many are caught up like me).

Many would argue that universities do their students a disservice by accepting drastically more theory students than the job market could possibly support. From what I understand, there may be a dozen theory hires at best per year when perhaps hundreds just received their PhD. When I was an undergrad working in my department's political science office, I remember filing 100-200 applications for a single spot, filled with candidates from top programs. The two finalists we did not select are still looking for a tenure-track position three years later.

I don't mean to scare you for the sake of scaring you, but you have to understand the risks before taking the plunge. You can absolutely still do a PhD in theory-- just be aware that there's a reasonable chance you'll have to look for work outside academia when you finish.

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I think the competition for admission is more fierce in theory than in other subfields exactly because some departments try to limit the theory acceptances somewhat because of the scarcity of jobs. As much as I can see there are truly remarkable people in theory and they are there because they love what they are doing just like you.

Edited by kaykaykay

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The rank of your undergrad itself doesn't matter much. But since LoR plays a big role in the decision and better schools usually have better professors... I think the rank indirectly matters.

And I don't think straight-to-undergrad doesn't hurt your chances. But many applicants have MA before they apply so you would be at disadvantage. One program I looked into said "although MA is not required, majority of our acceptances hold advanced degrees". I applied straight from undergrad and was summarily rejected, but I am actually glad that I wasn't accepted. My research interest was too broad and weak. Now, it's only been summer, but as I read through the MA reading list, I now have much better understanding in my own interest. I'm going to an MA program in Fall, and I think I will be much better prepared in the upcoming cycle than my last one.

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The rank of your undergrad itself doesn't matter much. But since LoR plays a big role in the decision and better schools usually have better professors... I think the rank indirectly matters.

Not 100% convinced of this. Maybe "rank" doesn't matter, but perceived "quality" of the undergrad institution matters insofar as what adcoms think that implies about the rigour of your coursework and grading. That being said, I think coming from a less recognized institution is something one can compensate for; you just need to do well on the GRE.

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Many would argue that universities do their students a disservice by accepting drastically more theory students than the job market could possibly support. From what I understand, there may be a dozen theory hires at best per year when perhaps hundreds just received their PhD. When I was an undergrad working in my department's political science office, I remember filing 100-200 applications for a single spot, filled with candidates from top programs. The two finalists we did not select are still looking for a tenure-track position three years later.

I don't mean to scare you for the sake of scaring you, but you have to understand the risks before taking the plunge. You can absolutely still do a PhD in theory-- just be aware that there's a reasonable chance you'll have to look for work outside academia when you finish.

I appreciate your comment. The scenario that you described is really horrific. Nevertheless, as I have said earlier, I will just have to accept this abysmal state, for I can't move elsewhere. This stat however gives a more optimistic account: http://resource.udallas.edu/132/APSApoltheorysurvey.pdf

As per this survey, around 46% of the graduated students in pol theory find a tenure-track job within a year. Around 10% have to wait for 5 years to get a tenure-track position. It's not great, but not either as bad as it often claims to be.

You really think that a political theorist can do anything except teaching? Why on the earth would somebody hire an obscure theorist for other jobs..?

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The rank of your undergrad itself doesn't matter much. But since LoR plays a big role in the decision and better schools usually have better professors... I think the rank indirectly matters.

And I don't think straight-to-undergrad doesn't hurt your chances. But many applicants have MA before they apply so you would be at disadvantage. One program I looked into said "although MA is not required, majority of our acceptances hold advanced degrees". I applied straight from undergrad and was summarily rejected, but I am actually glad that I wasn't accepted. My research interest was too broad and weak. Now, it's only been summer, but as I read through the MA reading list, I now have much better understanding in my own interest. I'm going to an MA program in Fall, and I think I will be much better prepared in the upcoming cycle than my last one.

Even though my undergrad institution is not a well-ranked college (300+ ranking in usnews), its faculty possesses some of the big names of the field (perhaps because it's a public institution, and conjoined with grad school). I can have LORs from relatively big names. Also, some of my professors are the direct students from institutions where I hope to go: their LORs are supposed to be well-received by their ex-professors..

I simply can't afford to do an MA. Plus, some of the programs offer MA with the phd program (Berkeley, Northwestern come to mind). So I hope in most cases, if not all, not having an MA won't be a serious drawback.

Thanks a ton for your kind comment.

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I think the competition for admission is more fierce in theory than in other subfields exactly because some departments try to limit the theory acceptances somewhat because of the scarcity of jobs. As much as I can see there are truly remarkable people in theory and they are there because they love what they are doing just like you.

This makes sense. I don't think that there is an inflation of theorists (for instance, I am probably the only one from my gigantic college who is seeking to get into pol theory program this year). There is a huge cleavage between pol theory and other sub-fields of pol science. I choose to do theory over, say, philosophy because of it's more liberatory potentials. I'll have to accept the fate (in terms of job), and do my study and writing. Little else can we do.

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Not 100% convinced of this. Maybe "rank" doesn't matter, but perceived "quality" of the undergrad institution matters insofar as what adcoms think that implies about the rigour of your coursework and grading. That being said, I think coming from a less recognized institution is something one can compensate for; you just need to do well on the GRE.

I tend to hope that the writing sample designates the quality of your education than something as tangible as GRE. My GRE scores are not stellar, but they are not bad either. I honestly think that my undergrad institution has a very solid quality, no less than the elite universities. Would you suggest me to re-take the GRE, by the way?

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I wouldn't recommend retaking the GRE unless you think you could significantly improve your scores. I would focus my time on writing a killer SOP. This will be far more important than a slight improvement in GRE scores. That said, I am not in theory and don't know whether the standards differ a bit (maybe for the verbal score?).

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How would you explain the "fierce competition" (I've seen people are saying so in this forum) for getting into political theory programs? If the job market is so bad, why people are still running after it? (I presume not many are caught up like me).

I study American politics/public policy. Graduate programs need graduate students as cheap labor. Political theory classes are always in high demand and I am sure you will teach a few seminars. Much of it is downright irresponsible considering how awful the job market is. You may love political theory, but be realistic, you could be wasting 6-7 years of your life (it takes theorists longer to finish too) for no prospects.

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I study American politics/public policy. Graduate programs need graduate students as cheap labor. Political theory classes are always in high demand and I am sure you will teach a few seminars. Much of it is downright irresponsible considering how awful the job market is. You may love political theory, but be realistic, you could be wasting 6-7 years of your life (it takes theorists longer to finish too) for no prospects.

You are absolutely right about this basic political economy--- cheap labor is the secret of much of today's grad schools. My experience also says that theory classes are far more popular than other subfields among the undergrads. As for me, what else can I do? I could go for a phd in philosophy, but philosophy job market is no better than pol theory. May be I need to study another subfield along with pol theory (if there is such a scope)...so that I can have a better shot at getting a job.

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Don't most grad schools require you to specialize in two subfields? Maybe you can pick up a comparative to make yourself more... "marketable"?

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You are absolutely right about this basic political economy--- cheap labor is the secret of much of today's grad schools. My experience also says that theory classes are far more popular than other subfields among the undergrads. As for me, what else can I do? I could go for a phd in philosophy, but philosophy job market is no better than pol theory. May be I need to study another subfield along with pol theory (if there is such a scope)...so that I can have a better shot at getting a job.

That is one experience. I know at my undergrad theory classes were not highly demanded, and at Notre Dame it seemed that Theory students had to TA IR classes because there were more studented in IR than theory. That said, I think there may be more diversity in theory classes with just less students in them.

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From my personal experience and comments on this forum, it seems like writing a superb Statement of Purpose is not only the most important factor of a strong applicant but also is the easiest (yet most complicated) to improve.

YMMV. A few years into my program, I asked one of the faculty members that was on the admissions committee dumb enough to accept me just what it is that he looks for. "Letters, undergrad institution/courses/grades, GRE quant score." I was a little taken aback and asked if the SoP means anything to him. "No---why should it? Nobody knows what they want to study before they apply to grad school." One of the faculty members on the committee this year said something quite similar.

Anyway, yeah, it's quite the crapshoot.

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YMMV. A few years into my program, I asked one of the faculty members that was on the admissions committee dumb enough to accept me just what it is that he looks for. "Letters, undergrad institution/courses/grades, GRE quant score." I was a little taken aback and asked if the SoP means anything to him. "No---why should it? Nobody knows what they want to study before they apply to grad school." One of the faculty members on the committee this year said something quite similar.

Anyway, yeah, it's quite the crapshoot.

I know you said YMMV, but do PS people care more about GRE Q and V in general?

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YMMV. A few years into my program, I asked one of the faculty members that was on the admissions committee dumb enough to accept me just what it is that he looks for. "Letters, undergrad institution/courses/grades, GRE quant score." I was a little taken aback and asked if the SoP means anything to him. "No---why should it? Nobody knows what they want to study before they apply to grad school." One of the faculty members on the committee this year said something quite similar.

Anyway, yeah, it's quite the crapshoot.

This is speculative, but I think your department likely selects for a specific skill set that is better signalled by coursework and GRE quant than the SOP, which might explain the attitudes of faculty in your department re: admissions. When I spoke with people on the admissions committees of other schools, they all seemed to emphasize the SOP when they spoke with me about my application, and they gave me the impression (although it was never explicitly stated) that the SOP was heavily weighted when determining who to admit.

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YMMV. A few years into my program, I asked one of the faculty members that was on the admissions committee dumb enough to accept me just what it is that he looks for. "Letters, undergrad institution/courses/grades, GRE quant score." I was a little taken aback and asked if the SoP means anything to him. "No---why should it? Nobody knows what they want to study before they apply to grad school." One of the faculty members on the committee this year said something quite similar.

Anyway, yeah, it's quite the crapshoot.

This is speculative, but I think your department likely selects for a specific skill set that is better signalled by coursework and GRE quant than the SOP, which might explain the attitudes of faculty in your department re: admissions. When I spoke with people on the admissions committees of other schools, they all seemed to emphasize the SOP when they spoke with me about my application, and they gave me the impression (although it was never explicitly stated) that the SOP was heavily weighted when determining who to admit.

I'm going to agree with RWBG. While it's clear that basically no one knows what they will study, the SOP provides 2 VERY important pieces of information to an adcomm: a demonstration that you can write clearly and succinctly and that you can formulate an appropriate research question.

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